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1985 - 1991

Now as we enter the third year of Russian’s invasion of Ukraine,

there’s a temptation to boycott Russian culture along with Russian oil.

We should resist this temptation.

Since the time of the tsars, Russian artists and writers have pushed back

—sometimes overtly, sometimes indirectly—against the excesses of their leaders.

The posters of the Glasnost era presented in this exhibition show how an earlier

generation of Russian artists spoke truth to power even while pretending to serve it.

They should give us hope for a brighter future for Russia—and Ukraine.

Curatorial Statement

Hope against Hope is a revelatory exhibition of Soviet posters from 1985 through 1991.

It shows how artists and designers from that era responded to the innovative policies of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness) launched by Mikhail Gorbachev, the new General Secretary of the Communist Party. Perestroika and glasnost were meant to rescue the foundering Soviet Union’s economy and to revive the long-lost ideals of the Russian Revolution.


The themes of these posters reflect Gorbachev’s policies. Some celebrate the utopian ideals of the Russian Revolution and its leaders: the scientists and workers who tried to bring them to fruition. Some urge viewers to remember the sacrifices of those who defended Russia in World War II. Some denounce Josef Stalin, who transformed the dream of socialism into a totalitarian nightmare; the nameless bureaucrats who brought the Russian economy to a standstill; the slackers who avoided productive labor; the plague of alcoholism coupled with the spread of AIDS. Others warn the young people who seemed to threaten Russian society by emulating the sexual freedom of the West. Many call for more open political discussion; for an end to the arms war; and for the defense of the natural environment. 


Along with these verbal messages, the artists draw on a range of images and styles to convey a second set of meanings—sometimes reinforcing the primary message, sometimes subtly contradicting it. They represent workers in overalls; faceless bureaucrats in drab suits; idealized women borrowed from classical art and from Playboy magazine; long-haired hippies in psychedelic colors; nature scenes resembling Japanese prints; and striking images of everyday objects: a typewriter, a comb, a lightbulb, a cigarette, a wineglass….


Some of the posters are drawn in the “popular” style of cartoons and instruction manuals while others revive the dynamic geometric configurations of the early Russian avant-garde. Many utilize the graphic styles of European and American posters and advertisements from the 1950s and ’60s, with flattened imagery and abstract typography, or with the exaggerated modeling of figures and objects found in children’s books. The importation of Western styles suggests an unstated craving for contemporary capitalism and its cornucopia of commodities in contrast to the frequent shortages of produce and materials during that time due to the Soviet economy. 

The posters in the exhibition reveal a hitherto unknown chapter in Russian art and design. Grouped according to theme and imagery, the posters will be divided into ten sections: “Back to the Future” (recalling the ideals of the Revolution); “Heroes”; “Villains”; “Slackers”; “Libertines”; “Victims”; “Soviet Venus”; “Nature”; “The Language of Objects”; and “Peace.” Every section, comprising a range of two to twelve posters, will be introduced by respective wall texts providing each with a social context and historical background, while the labels for the individual posters will include translations of the Russian text that appear on the images along with explanations of key references.  Overall, the selection and installation will highlight the visual impact of the posters, enticing the general viewer as well as the aficionado of Russian art and history.

Curated by Pepe Karmel in collaboration with George G. King.

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